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`Yankee, come South'. Trade show lures winter-weary Northerners to retirement south of the frost line

Outside the Colonial Hilton, the winter landscape is a study in gray and white: dirty snowbanks, bare trees, and leaden skies. But step inside the double doors and suddenly the color scheme - not to mention the season - changes.

Here it is summer, or maybe spring. Everything is lush green and azure blue - a world of golf courses and palm trees, lakes and swimming pools.

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Welcome to the Florida Retirement Living Expo, a three-day trade show designed to lure winter-weary New Englanders to mobile home communities in the Sunshine State.

From posters touting ``Retirement living at its finest'' to signs boasting ``Best location south of the frost line,'' the message in the 33 exhibit booths is the same: ``Yankee, come South.''

For many of the 900 couples attending this show - one of eight such expos to be held this year in the Northeast and Midwest - the event offers a first glimpse of Sunbelt retirement.

Registrants can watch videos, collect brochures, and hear sales pitches for developments with idyllic names: Barefoot Bay, Palm Breezes, Pinelake Gardens, Holly Forest, Harbor Lights.

One visitor, Rosalyn Smith of Lynn, Mass., explains the appeal. ``My husband and I both still work,'' she says. ``But as time goes on, we're thinking more about Florida. We'd like to have a little place to go during the cold weather.''

The Smiths expect to settle near relatives in Vero Beach or Key Biscayne. But many prospective retirees will ``shop the entire state'' before deciding where to buy, according to Dick Kaiser of Homes of Merit in Bartow, Fla. The average buyer, he notes, spends three years making a decision.

``People come to Florida and take what I call `the grand tour,''' says Richard Dummer, advertising director of Manufactured Home News in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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``They pick an area, then pick a community. They look at various amenity packages - golf, water.''

``Amenities'' is, in fact, a favorite word of Florida developers, right up there with ``active,'' ``adult,'' ``luxury,'' ``carefree,'' and - the hottest word of all - ``life style.''

``People are buying life style, OK?'' says Tony Gowans, marketing director of Country Lakes in Fort Myers. ``They're not buying housing. That's secondary.''

Of greater importance to many new residents are ``life-style features'' such as championship golf courses, marinas, heated pools, lawn care, garbage pickup, security, and free HBO. Million-dollar clubhouses, complete with social directors and crowded activities calendars, have become standard.

``People coming down here are looking for a little fun, a chance to meet people,'' explains Bill Stevenson, president of Major Marketing Enterprises Inc. in Leesburg, Fla., sponsors of the show. Adds Mr. Gowans: ``These people are active. They don't consider themselves old.''

He jokingly divides the retirement market into three groups: ``We call people in the 55-to-65 age bracket the `go-gos.' Between 65 and 75 they're the `slow-gos.' Over 75, they're the `no-gos.'''

Not really. As Mr. Stevenson notes, ``Today people play tennis into their 70s and 80s.''

For some expo visitors, the term ``mobile home community'' calls up images of a 1950s trailer park on the dusty outskirts of town.

But displays here shatter those stereotypes, showing spacious ``double wide'' homes with central air conditioning, ``decorator'' kitchens, and walk-in closets.

About half of all prospective buyers plan to make Florida their permanent home.

Others, like the Smiths, want what Stevenson calls a ``winter cottage - somewhere to hide from the snow.''

Yet once snowbirds arrive in Florida, Mr. Kaiser observes, many go through an ``evolution.''

They begin by spending three to four months in the state. Gradually, they stay longer, until it becomes their primary residence.

Eventually, they go north only to visit children and grandchildren during the summer, when, as Gowans puts it, ``you're talking low 90s and humid.''

But right now it is winter, and exhibitors are eager to capitalize on Florida's semitropical climate. To lure visitors, many developers offer several nights of free lodging, or partial reimbursement for travel expenses.

Homes of Merit gives free tickets to Red Sox exhibition games in Winter Haven when show-goers tour the company's factory in nearby Bartow.

Even Cypress Gardens offers discount coupons, handed out here by Kelleigh Kelley, a cheerful blonde in a teal-blue antebellum costume. (``A lot of people want to buy the dress,'' Miss Kelley confides.)

But whatever else exhibitors are marketing - property, homes, insurance, furniture - they are also selling a sense of entitlement.

They are promising ``resort living,'' ``the good life,'' even ``paradise'' to a generation that has spent a working lifetime obeying alarm clocks and bosses.

``You can afford the lifestyle you deserve!'' one brochure proclaims.

A poster for a community in North Fort Myers offers another enticement: ``The people are friendly and fun to be around. You'll love living at Horizon.''

Maybe. Still, not everyone leaves the Colonial Hilton convinced that Florida retirement represents nirvana.

One man and woman, arriving just before the doors close on Sunday, dramatize the classic debate.

``She's been crying Florida for years,'' the husband says, not unkindly, as his wife scoops up brochures and stuffs them into a white plastic bag. ``Me, I can't stand air conditioning.''

He sighs.

Then, glancing at his watch, he jingles his car keys and calls out, ``C'mon, hon, let's go home.''

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